Scrimshaw Sperm Whale’s Tooth


The obverse, or main side of this tooth is dominated by an etching of an American merchant sailing ship under sail from right to left. Below the water is an exergue or separate scene of three women. In the center is the bust of a woman in an arch; the two outside women are holding up flowers in one hand and pointing at the woman in the center with the other hand, as if they were on stage congratulating her after a performance.

On the reverse is a patriotic scene of a woman standing in front of an anchor. In her right hand she holds a flagpole topped with a 19-star American flag; her left forefinger is held up, apparently to indicate “#1.” To her left is a house with a smoking chimney; on her right are a flowering plant, a palm tree and a steeple.

The American flags, the flowers and other details are highlighted in red for a polychrome effect. With the women, ship and patriotic symbolism, the scrimshaw artist of this piece has managed to include all of the common sailor’s favorite themes.

Scrimshaw began in the late 18th or early 19th century as the art of carving whale bone and ivory aboard whale ships. The crew on whalers had plenty of leisure time between sighting and chasing whales, and the hard parts of whales were readily available on voyages that could last up to four years.

In its simplest form, a tooth was removed from the lower jaw of a sperm whale and the surface was prepared by scraping and sanding until it was smooth. The easiest way to begin an etching was to smooth a print over the tooth, prick the outline of the image with a needle and then “connect-the-dots” once the paper was removed. This allowed even unskilled craftsmen to create fine carvings. Some sailors were skilled enough to etch their drawings freehand. After the lines were finished, they were filled in with lamp black or sometimes colored pigments.

Scrimshaw could be decorative, like simple sperm whale teeth, or they could be useful, as in ivory napkin rings, corset busks (stiffeners), swifts for winding yarn or pie crimpers. The sailor’s hand-carved scrimshaw was then given to loved ones back on shore as souvenirs of the hard and lonely life aboard long and dangerous voyages.

Location: Currently not on view

Subject: Whaling

See more items in: Work and Industry: Maritime, Cultures & Communities, Scrimshaw, Work, Art


Exhibition Location:

Credit Line: Gift of Frederic A. Delano

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: DL.374493Catalog Number: 374493Accession Number: 136263

Object Name: tooth, whalescrimshawscrimshaw tooth, whale

Physical Description: scrimshaw (overall production method/technique)Measurements: overall: 5 13/16 in; 14.732 cm


Record Id: nmah_311140

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